The Sand Beneath
Most of us don’t give sand much thought, even when we mark it with footprints, but its presence sifts through our culture. The tiny grains signify time’s passage, mortality and the world’s immense wonder. Sand represents instability yet plays a key role in holding together some of our longest-standing buildings. Novelist Wallace Stegner saw in those granules a metaphor for life’s journey. Clearly, there’s more to sand than meets the eye—or the foot.
The hourglass, or sandglass, consisting of two clear bulbs between which fine granular material pours to measure a set period of time, was in widespread use by the 1300s. Mariners used it to gauge not only time but distance traveled, and it was a common household device as well. One late-14th-century French housewife left behind a recipe for preparing hourglass “sand” by boiling it in wine nine separate times.
While the glass bulbs of these ancient timekeepers were made from sand, the material inside was powdered marble, lead, tin or eggshell more often than natural sand granules, which are chunkier and don’t flow as well. The substance had to stream evenly, in any humidity level, without caking or clogging the channel between the bulbs, so the time measured would be consistent. Granular material has what is known as an angle of repose—the maximum steepness at which sand or a similar material can be heaped before it starts to slide downward. Rounded particles have a shallower point of repose than those that are more angular. The shape of the bulb and a particular granular material’s angle of repose determine the speed at which the grains pour through an hourglass.
The expression “sands of time” refers to the workings of an hourglass. Because it measures life’s passing moments, visibly representing future above and past below, the hourglass became a memento mori (a reminder of mortality) and turns up frequently in late medieval and Renaissance artworks, along with skulls, snuffed candles and other symbols of death. But hourglasses are still around. Grimmy, a skull-headed Death, wielded one when he visited Stephen Colbert during The Colbert Report’s final weeks to signal that the right-wing pundit’s days were numbered.
As a representation of the fleeting nature of our earthly passage, the hourglass is rather benign—though it does darkly illustrate the Ash Wednesday incantation “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Still, its message that tempus fugit is positively upbeat compared to memento mori such as the crypt of the Capuchin monks in Rome. Intricately decorated with the separated skeletal elements, including skulls, of several thousand deceased friars, its rooms include Crypt of the Pelvises and Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. A multilingual notice ghoulishly reminds visitors, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
In this first stanza of “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake sees beauty and possibility everywhere. Carl Sagan, in his 1980 TV series, Cosmos, seems to echo Blake’s contemplation of infinity: “The total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
Blake’s lines present a more sanguine vision of time’s passing than symbolic skulls and bones, which insist undeniably that the bell will toll for each of us. But grains of sand relate in a more literal way to memento mori. About 70 percent of the sand covering the world’s continental beaches is composed of fragments of quartz, along with a few other types of rocks and minerals. The bone-white sand found in many areas of the tropics, however, is calcium carbonate, made up of tiny bits of shells, corals and skeletons of marine organisms. Whereas quartz sand is eroded rock, calcium carbonate sand is really the detritus of living things.
A fascinating property of sand is that, when dry, it has some characteristics of a liquid. In an hourglass, for example, the grains fill the shape of the chambers, draining steadily from one globe to the other. Yet when sand is wet, it clumps rather than flows and must be pressed to fill a vessel. Wet sand holds footprints and becomes castle walls. And it transforms from a flimsy, shifting substrate to one of strength, especially when mixed with binding materials as well as water.
Sand’s malleability is important in the Jungian technique of sandplay therapy, in which a person constructs scenes with props and figures in trays holding wet or dry sand. This technique, in a spin on Blake’s line “To see a world in a grain of sand,” creates a world from grains of sand. As Carl Jung explained, “Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain.”
Beach sand contains another world—one of tiny life-forms called meiofauna or psammon. In Sand: The Never-Ending Story, geologist Michael Welland claims these communities show a “diversity as great as, or greater than, that of any other environment on the planet.”
Sand collectors are called arenophiles, a word derived from the Latin arena, meaning “sand” or “sandy area,” a reference to the particulate strewn about the Roman Colosseum to soak up the blood of gladiators and other combatants. The 16th-century pope Pius V may have inspired sand hobbyists when he urged pilgrims to pilfer samples from the Colosseum as sacred relics, believing them doused in the blood of early Christian martyrs. Both the great arena and the granules found on its floor are memento mori. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” though describing a different “colossal wreck” (around which “lone and level sands stretch far away”), reminds us that grand monuments are future ruins, crumbling reminders of their mortal creators.
Today’s sand collectors focus on their samples’ place of origin, mineral content, shapes and colors. Sand can also have value in forensic analysis. One bizarre case brings us back to Rome, where the bullet-riddled body of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro was found in the trunk of a car in 1978. Sand obtained at the scene proved to have come from a nearby beach. Moro’s kidnappers, however, later claimed they had planted the sand to throw investigators off their trail.
The Book of Matthew warns against building a house on sand (recommending a foundation of rock instead) but does not offer commentary on building a house of sand, which is an ingredient in cement and concrete. In Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Angle of Repose, Oliver Ward tries to make his fortune in the American West of the late 19th century by developing a formula for cement. At the time, Portland cement, a common building material then and one still used today, was shipped to the United States from Germany or England and then hauled overland to its destination.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Rome’s Colosseum was constructed of travertine, volcanic rock and concrete. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, recently discovered the secret to the amphitheater’s longevity. Roman concrete was made from volcanic ash and lime mortar, a formula that undergoes a type of crystallization as it cures that resists cracking—for millennia. The researchers also realized that this ancient mortar has an environmental advantage. Its production discharges very little carbon into the atmosphere, while modern methods of processing the limestone for Portland cement release about seven percent of the world’s total annual emissions.
In “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake evoked the world in a grain of sand. Environmentalist Rachel Carson reiterated this concept in a 1958 article, “Our Ever-Changing Shore”: “In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” Mary Stevenson’s popular religious poem “Footprints in the Sand” reflects on faith in the form of tracks left across life’s landscape.
Wallace Stegner employs a geological metaphor in Angle of Repose; the title refers not only to the resting point of granular material along a slope but also to the way people adjust to conform to their life circumstances. Narrator Lyman Ward constructs a marital history of his grandparents, who move from the genteel Northeast to several rough Western mining towns in the 1870s: “What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer…. [but] how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.” In Stegner’s image, we are tumbling shards that settle in a position that comes to define us.
Wallace Stegner fills Angle of Repose with memento mori. The narrator’s grandfather, Oliver Ward, hopes to create an irrigation system in the high desert around Boise, Idaho, that will be his crowning achievement. He names its first portion the Susan Canal, after his wife, who describes its “12-foot banks [that] slope back at the ‘angle of repose,’ which means the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling.” Ward’s dream is never realized, and the canal becomes the site of a tragedy that tears the family apart. While Susan is meeting with a paramour, the youngest Ward child, Agnes, slips into the canal and drowns.
Oliver eventually reunites with his wife, and spends several years crossing roses to create a hybrid with a “brief, early blooming” that he names for Agnes. Susan’s reaction to this memento mori is suggested in what she writes of the hybrid’s parent rose: “I can hardly wait for it to bloom again, though I know that when it does I shall cry myself sick…. It came into its first blooming in the canyon the summer Agnes was born.… That golden profuseness yellowed the air all above her face, and scented the whole yard.”